In my own life, which has had an abundance of pain and trauma, I’ve had people very close to me tell me they couldn’t bear to hear a story, or perhaps they just withdrew in the midst of things and said they couldn’t bear it. As if I could! I couldn’t either, but I didn’t have a choice. And by telling me that they’re sorry, they couldn’t bear it, they are putting me outside humanity, in a way, though I doubt they realize that.
There is a photo in the media of a small dead boy in the surf, a refugee child, and many people are upset because the picture is there. Because they have to see it, because it’s too upsetting. IT IS! When I look at it I literally become unable to breathe. I have to turn my head for a moment so the hard lump gets out of my chest and throat, so I can take a breath eventually. That little boy, face down in the surf, could be Oliver in a different world. It’s excruciating. And people make all kinds of sophisticated arguments about the picture — it’s voyeurism, it’s unethical, it’s not doing anything but upsetting people, etc.
Does looking at the picture accomplish anything? What is served by my looking at it and getting so upset that I can’t breathe? It doesn’t put money in the hands of organizations and people who are able to help, that’s for sure. So what is the point?
I can bear witness. I can know what’s happening in the world, I can see that people are dying left and right in an effort to get their families to safety. By not turning my head, or turning the page, I can bear witness. It may be all I can do, but I can bear witness. I can know. The knowledge hurts. Since we have a little boy in our family it’s not a theoretical hurt, it’s specific. The little boy that we have seen in the surf is just one of hundreds, maybe thousands of people who have died. Adult men and women, young people, children, babies. And that doesn’t even count the people being murdered, the reason all these people are fleeing.
Why the picture? You could just read all the articles and learn what’s happening. I don’t know about you, but I have not read all the articles. I have not read many articles. I’ve had a vague awareness based on headlines only. But that picture forced me to know.
What does it mean if I turn away and refuse to look, refuse to know? Doing that means I privilege my own delicate sensibilities and put my fingers in my ears and say la la la la la!! I say, “Well, I know enough.” And maybe you do know enough! I’m just talking about me, and thinking this through. I’m sharing it here in case it’s something you hadn’t thought about, and perhaps you want to think about it, too. To ME, refusing to look is like living in the smoke shadow of a concentration camp and turning your head away, stuffing rags in the cracks of the windows so you don’t have to see it, smell it, know it.
My bearing witness means those people’s suffering is seen. They’d much rather have a home, food, safety, but not having those things and having the world turn away because it’s too hard to see, how AWFUL that is. Bearing witness feels like the absolute least I can do.
The father of the little dead boy is the only surviving member of his family, and he has said that “the world has nothing for me now. I just want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.” Me, I get to see Oliver whenever I like, I get to hold him and laugh, watch him toddle away to chase a dog, carefully pick up bites of cheese quesadilla or watermelon. Me, I get to see Katie whenever I like, be in the presence of my daughter, talk to her, hug her. I get to talk to Marnie whenever I like, and see her when I can. If something happens, I get to go help them. If they need something, I ache if I can’t help them because they are everything to me. And if I lost all of them, I imagine I would feel just like that poor father. How can I decide it’s just too hard to look, and just hold my kids and grandson as if that’s the whole world?
It’s very hard to look. It really is. It’s so hard it makes me hurt, physically. It makes my chest hurt. I can’t catch a breath. My eyes fill with tears. My whole body aches. I can’t stay sitting in my comfortable chair, I tear my eyes away and stand up and pace, not seeing anything as I wander around my comfortable home. And eventually I can breathe again, and when the story comes up in the news, or the picture — and others — present themselves, I take a deep breath and prepare myself and bear witness. It’s the least I can do.